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Home / News / Interview with Ultan Naughton sscc, from the Ireland-England Delegation

Interview with Ultan Naughton sscc, from the Ireland-England Delegation

“In being open to students, 
I hope to dismiss some of the prejudice 

towards the Catholic faith that exists”


For the last few years, Ultan Naughton sscc has been engaged in pastoral work with young people in a university setting in Dublin, Ireland.

When did you start working as a chaplain at the University of Technology and what has that experience been like?

Thank you Fernando and greetings to all the brothers, sisters and secular branch throughout the world. Yes, you are correct, I have been working in the Technology University in Dublin.

However, I have worked with young people all my life in sporting, voluntary and religious groups, so this is not new to me. In the University I look after the departments of Biological and Health Sciences; Chemical and Biopharmaceutical Science; Physics, Clinical and Optometric Sciences; Mathematics; Computer Science and Data; and Electrical and Electronic Engineering. I looked after students from undergraduate level to doctoral students, including Erasmus and International Students. With responsibility for over 5000 students, it was constantly busy. It is an experience I thoroughly enjoy - working with lecturers, administration staff, and other support staff to help students through a myriad of different problems that they can experience: physically, socially, emotionally, sexually, financially, spiritually, etc.

What challenges have you found in this ministry with young students?

As I have just alluded to, there are a huge variety of challenges, some of which no doubt are universal, and some of which are more specific to the Irish context, as a result of over 25 years of reports into abuses of various kinds in the Irish Church. We forget that it’s a diet that these University students have been fed all their lives, with obvious consequences. We are seeing a huge increase in the numbers seeking help for mental health issues with anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicidal ideation a serious concern. We are also seeing more stress caused from family or relationship breakdowns and financial uncertainty. But we can’t forget alcohol and drug abuse and their impacts; poor sleep due to work and study commitments; too long online screen time and associated problems; long commuting times; accessing appropriate accommodation; a lack of spirituality - and here in Ireland - a fear of being identified as a Church going Christian; etc. Added to this is the students and staff that die in the course of the academic year, or of a family member. The University has about 30,000 students and 3,500 members of staff from 140 different nationalities, so deaths are inevitable, but the impact, can be tremendous.

What are the main concerns of the young people you have encountered?

Much of the concerns revolve around the issues I just mentioned, but I couldn’t begin to list all the issues. An International undergraduate student who needs to pay about €15000 in fees before they find accommodation, feed themselves and live in Dublin has very different needs and concerns to a doctoral student who normally are a little older, sometimes married and with children, sometimes suffer relationship break down, and sometimes are fighting to get the funding needed to get their thesis over the line. Many of the international students, often find the anti-religion and very obvious pro LGBTQ+ agenda a bit overwhelming, so the concerns vary dramatically. My role is to support all students, not just those who identify as religious, by being available and sensitive to them and their specific needs. My door is always open, and no appointment is necessary. Often when they discover I am a priest, I hope that something in how I have treated and respected them, will help them ask bigger questions of life. In being open to students, I hope to dismiss some of the prejudice towards priests or the Catholic faith that exits, and to be the face of the Church that some do not know. As it’s a secular university, we are expected to be chaplains to ALL staff and ALL students. The work therefore has to done, a bit like the founder Pierre Coudrin, clandestinely! But like the founder, it’s done nonetheless. The Good Mother was influenced by the Good Father and his openness and attitude; she saw something in him that she liked, and so I hope to be the same for many of the students I engage with.

We live in a world beset by constant change and multiple challenges - how does this affect young people??

Working with university students is fantastic, as you glimpse and are inspired by their enthusiasm and zest for life. They believe the world is their oyster, and so it is. University students today, like all gone before them, have challenges to confront: academic challenges, mental health issues and equal access to services. There are new ways of communicating or lack of communicating that can cause social isolation and loneliness. Digital and social media and the growth of new platforms leave many living in a virtual reality. There is cyberbullying and concerns around online safety. The push for equality, diversity and inclusion, the new buzz words, often ring hollow for a religious person in a secular university who feels sidelined; or a person with a disability for whom inclusion continues to be difficult; or someone from a disadvantaged background who doesn’t have equal access.

Some students can show a lack of engagement in anything except what helps themselves; some avoid hearing anything that questions their belief system or the prevailing narrative, and avoid listening to the other side by buying completely into one agenda. The University is supposed to be the place where ideas are debated. However we cannot blame students for many of these issues - they are societal and religious life issues too! But it’s not all bad. Remember many students are often to the fore in pushing climate awareness, equality issues, respect for all people, and a strong awareness of social justice. There is much we have to help students with, but equally as much we can learn from them.

How would you describe the relationship of young people with the Church in your area and in Ireland?

I think it’s fair to say there is a lack of interest or engagement with the Church or organised religion by the vast majority of students. That is not to say there is no spirituality, or some students for whom faith is important, but most are not aware of what faith or spirituality actually means for them. That’s where visibility, support and guidance is so important, and opening up the beauty of the Catholic faith for their inquisitive minds. For those who do show any interest in their faith, it’s done very quietly and most are not prepared for any obvious public manifestation of same. New ways of building community are required, as many young people do seek community and a sense of belonging.

Remember, to get anything done in a secular University, you are depending on the good will of many members of staff, some of whom are more anti-Catholic than students in general. It’s very painful to watch, to be subjected to such suspicion and at times hostility, but I just continue about my work quietly. We just have to be creative and find ways around all this to engage and support students and begin to evangelise or re-evangelise the young. But the wider Church needs to be involved in this too.

What has this experience meant for you as a SSCC religious?

Without being overly spiritual, it’s a cross that has to be borne. Just as Jesus suffered, so we too suffer as a result of a Church that didn’t listen to the cry of the poor for a long time and covered up the sins of some within its own rank. This is the consequence of that lack of leadership. In Ireland the power of the Church was all reaching, and now it suits some people to ensure we have, not only no power, but no voice as well. I bring it all to my Adoration, and let the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, unravel it all in their time, not mine. Many have predicted the end of the Church in the past, and that didn’t happen. It’s also a reminder of the sacrifices of many of our brothers who died for the faith: our Spanish martyrs and Paris Commune brothers – and while its painful at times here, I am not being murdered as they were.

Like Damien of Molokai my call as an SSCC brother is to reach out to those on the margins and hurting in any way, and like the Founders trust in divine providence. We have such giants in our Congregation, alive and dead, that I can draw strength and inspiration from. What’s most important is that we do something, not give up. Let the Spirit guide us.

At the end of 2023 you started at St. Patrick's College, Dublin City University. Tell us a little bit about what this service consists of and how this new experience is going.

Yes, I have been requested by the Archbishop of Dublin to take on a new posting. I am still in shock over the request. The new University trains most of the teachers in Ireland’s primary and secondary schools, many of whom will be working in Catholic Schools all over Ireland. So it’s a big challenge and one that I am looking forward to. As its early days yet, you will have to come back to me next year so I can tell you all about it! For now, it’s about getting to know the campus, the movers and shakers on it, and then get to know as many of the students as I can. I also have to look after a very big Church on the campus, and I am also chaplain to a primary school that this year celebrates 130 years. So interesting times ahead, and another chapter to be written in the years ahead. Wish me luck! To the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, Honour and Glory. Amen.

Ultan sscc with a group of trainee chaplains on the Masters Programme
in Dublin City University’s, St Patrick’s Campus.